We gather in a snug room, circling the same dining table whether there are three of us or 10. In one corner, a TV blinks with the jingles and colors of Ruleta de la Suerte, Spain’s version of Wheel of Fortune. I have come to value my time with the gameshow as part of my language practice and have also, I confess, developed a lonely-old-lady sense of friendship and comradery with the host, Jorge. At first the incredible variety of V-necked shirts he wears was jarring, but now I appreciate that bronzed triangle of exposed skin.
Along one wall there is a hearty, old-school, wood-burning stove as well as a modern stovetop and oven. Between the two of them and the tireless circulation of pots and pans and frying and boiling, this no-name space is a bubble of warmth nestled at the heart of Casa Labazuy (Cah-suh Lah-buh-thwee), a many-storied maze of a 14th Century home. Add a handful of brothers and sisters to the default temperature of “Tropical,” a couple bottles of wine, loud Spanish conversation and we’re stripping layers and wiping sweaty brows in no time. Our body heat is an important ingredient to keeping the room alive and pulsing.
Snuggled next to the two ovens is a small cabinet and countertop. The cabinet houses the homemade olive oil and vinegar, salt and not much else, just empty space. It is always perfectly tidy and the cabinet door requires a special little maneuver to close it, the kind of nuance of home that one ceases to notice after many years. A clean dishtowel drapes over the brass rail of the venerable old oven, warm and dry and always ready for action.
A window facing the lane and across from Secastilla’s bar provides small-village style entertainment. A car door banging shut is worth a peek out the window, as is a voice or a clank or a shift in the amount of light shining through. Do you think it will rain today? Who’s in the bar? That damn cat’s leaving footprints on my windshield again! And if Saturday’s vermouth session in the bar drags on a bit later than normal, one sister or another will bang on the window from above, imploring us with manic hand gestures to hurry.
In direct sight of Abuelo’s seat at the head of the table there is a simple clock mounted on the wall, a metronome for the daily activity of the house. The schedule is almost always the same, no matter what day of the year. When 1:30 arrives, you better be at the table for lunch or Abuelo gets restless. On another wall there is a calendar of the Catholic saint days and moon cycle, two entities that silently but powerfully dictate almost everything that happens in Secastilla.
There is a long-established rhythm to our meals in this cozy room, and there’s a distinct farm-family spirit: everyone pitches in and not a crumb is wasted. When the majority of what’s being served is planted, cultivated, harvested and processed in house, every bite carries significance. Every plateful is the time, sweat, and energy of someone at the table. What’s in season is what’s for dinner, whether you like it or not. Rounds of bread bought every morning in the village bakery become a utensil; fork in one hand, bread in the other. Half sponge, half side item, they swipe their plates as they go.
First we eat some kind of vegetable: a tomato salad studded with green olives in the summer, potato and cabbage in the winter, maybe. Olive oil is the condiment of choice and is drizzled generously onto cauliflower, green beans, and frisee. Everything, really. Maybe some salt is added, but not much. The unctuous gold of the oil deepens flavors and richens even the most modest garden vegetable, and too much salt distracts from this subtle magic.
Then, with plates shiny clean from the bread swiping, seconds are served. House-raised rabbit or chicken with onions in a golden-brown, brothy gravy. Salty sea cod in a tomato sauce made and canned by the women of the house during the past summer. More bread is cut and crumbs cover the vinyl table cloth. Abuelo will sweep his into his plate, or his glass of water or into his hand and throw them back into his mouth.
After the meal a fruit basket appears, and we choose from mandarins, bananas, apples and pears. On special occasions and weekends dessert is offered: cheesecake, ice cream or flan, maybe. Or a plate of bite-sized turrones is placed in the middle of the table, too tasty and mouth-poppable to ignore. We drink water that was collected from a nearby mountain spring out of a red plastic jug. And then finally, we all do our little part to clean up, which includes a full sweep of the dining space, every day, after every meal. Pride presents itself in the little things.
The cadence of life patters forward sweetly and evenly, and this modest space catches all the family stories. It’s seen the type of sorrow that sneaks up on you and crumbles your face into tears. It’s seen laughter so hearty it makes the walls creak. Pouting, tempers, reunions and introductions. Little coffees and loneliness. Three generations of aproned women leaning over the stovetop until their cheeks are pink. Sneaky kisses and easy affection. It’s seen it all. The whole house orbits around this one room, the room that defines home.